Pragmatism, Purity, and the Debt

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One wing of the Republican Party cares nothing about re-election while another cares only about re-election

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Compare and contrast:  

1. We don't care about re-election ... re-election is the farthest thing from my mind," freshman Republican Tom Reed tells the New York Times, explaining right wing intransigence on the debt ceiling.
 2. "I refuse to help Barack Obama get re-elected by marching Republicans into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declares, opposing a Republican engineered default on the debt because, "it destroys your brand ... that is very bad positioning going into an election."

One wing of the Republican Party cares nothing about re-election while another cares only about re-election. It's the latter wing, the McConnell wing, that out of shortsighted electoral self-interest gave a minority of tea partiers their leverage. As Barney Frank has said, (and I paraphrase) policy is being made by people afraid of losing a primary to a nut job.

The nut jobs are not guilty by reason of insanity; at least they have the courage of their crazed convictions. It's the politicians who lack courage or conviction, members of the McConnell wing, who bear moral responsibility for the gratuitous debt crisis.

I'm not defending ideological purists who reject any compromise regardless of cost; personally I prefer ideologically driven pragmatism in a politician. But I don't share the utter disdain I've heard from some Democrats for tea partiers who do not care or claim not to care about their re-elections. I don't agree with tea party critics who assert that not caring about your re-election is the equivalent of not caring about your constituents. Maybe absolute electoral indifference reflects ideological arrogance, but some measure of indifference to elections is essential to principled leadership.

It's counter-productive as well as naïve to demand that legislators consider every vote worthy of electoral sacrifice, but it's cynicism to consider no vote so worthy. Years ago, I tried to persuade a Senate Democrat to vote against a popular constitutional amendment. "I know have to be willing to lose my seat over some votes," he said. "I just have to decide if this is one of them."  It's a decision, I suspect, that the McConnell wing will never entertain, but a politician who can't contemplate losing his seat doesn't deserve to keep it.


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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and spiked-online.com. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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